Editors’ note: This article was adapted from The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, by David Karpf (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), and is featured in NPQ‘s spring 2014 edition: “Hybrids, Hybridity & Hype.”
Most agree that the Internet’s effect on American political organizations has been profound. That said, current research about the Internet and politics holds two competing claims to be true. First, the new media environment has enabled a surge in “organizing without organizations.” We no longer need organizations to start a petition, create media content, or find like-minded individuals. Second, many fundamental features of American politics—from the average American’s lack of political knowledge or interest to the elite nature of major political institutions—remain unchanged by the new media environment. Everyone can now speak online, but surprisingly few can be heard.
I offer a third claim that modifies both of these perspectives: changes in information technology have transformed the organizational layer of American politics. A new generation of political advocacy groups have redefined organizational membership and pioneered novel fundraising practices. They have crafted new tactical repertoires and organizational work routines. Political mobilization is rarely spontaneous, and the organizations that mobilize public sentiment have changed as a result of the Internet. The real impact of the new media environment comes not through “organizing without organizations,” but through organizing with different organizations.
Though Internet-mediated organizations have played a prominent role in American politics for a dozen years, we still know very little about their operation; amid all the attention to trends in social media, the transformation of political organizations has gone overlooked.
For three and a half weeks, from February 16 through March 9, 2011, Wisconsin was home to the largest American labor protest in a generation. Unlike the Egyptian uprising that occurred mere weeks beforehand, public observers did not attribute a causal role in the Wisconsin protests to social media—no one believes Twitter caused the Wisconsin standoff. The Internet did play an essential mediating role, however, and it is through such large-scale events that the important niche now filled by a new generation of political advocacy groups becomes clear.
The labor protests in Madison began as a local reaction to a state policy matter. On February 15, 2011, recently elected Republican Governor Scott Walker unveiled his budget repair proposal. Included in the bill was a provision that would dramatically curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. Under the guise of a short-term budget crisis, the new governor was attempting to cripple a core constituency of his Democratic opposition. Unions are not only reliable sources of Democratic-leaning votes; they also provide key organizational support during election seasons. As such, weakening the union movement is in the long-term electoral interests of the Republican Party network. With Republican majorities in Wisconsin’s state senate and state assembly, Walker had every reason to expect his bill to pass quickly into law. Democrats were outraged, but they had few bargaining chips. The entire fourteen-member Democratic state senate delegation (quickly dubbed “the Wisconsin 14”) decamped to neighboring Illinois, forestalling an immediate vote. Local union members turned out by the thousands, setting up a massive peaceful demonstration within and around the capital building, and the national labor movement—organizations like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—quickly joined these protesters.
The labor movement was not alone in this conflict; the netroots also immediately joined the fray. MoveOn.org reached out to its five million members, generating 150,000 notes of support for the Wisconsin 14 in a matter of days, and DailyKos, Democracy for America (DFA), and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) all launched fundraisers for the state senate delegation. On February 27, a netroots-led coalition held solidarity rallies in every state capital, drawing fifty thousand attendees and additional press attention nationwide. Meanwhile, Madison became “ground zero” for netroots organizers. Bloggers and field campaigners arrived in the state capital to help coordinate logistics, organize pressure tactics, and cover the details of the struggle. Armed with flip cameras, they interviewed local protesters and rapidly compiled issue advertisements. They then quickly turned to their national membership base for funding, and placed the commercials on local television.1
The nearly monthlong protest was the “largest continuous demonstration for workers rights in decades.”2 Daniel Mintz, MoveOn’s advocacy campaign director, remarked, “What happened around Wisconsin showed the most energy since 2008 and, in a non-electoral context, since the start of the Iraq War.”3 Though the governor obtained passage of his bill on March 9, by then the damage had been done. His public approval ratings plummeted, and the Republican governor of nearby Indiana decided against pursuing a similar bill due to fear of public reprisal.4 An energized coalition of local and national progressive organizations immediately announced recall campaigns against six vulnerable state senate Republicans. Democracy for America alone hired thirty-five field staff to work full-time on those recall efforts. The August special elections succeeded in unseating two of those senators, considerably narrowing the Republican senate majority.
There are three important lessons about the Internet and political advocacy that we should take from Wisconsin. The first is that Internet-enabled political organizing moves fast. Prior to the protests, netroots organizations like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America had no developed staff capacity in Madison. Yet, within forty-eight hours of the day Governor Walker unveiled his bill, they had diverted their attention away from the federal level, re-tasking key staffers, educating their membership, crafting online petitions, and raising funds. Over the following two weeks, they had organized mass protests in fifty state capitals. In an era of twenty-four-hour news channels, blogs, and Twitter updates, news cycles move fast, and netroots organizations have fashioned themselves to keep apace.
The second lesson is that the interest group ecology associated with the Democratic Party network has changed. The liberal coalition has for decades been composed of single-issue groups that remain concentrated within their “issue silo.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Sierra Club may agree in spirit with the Wisconsin protesters, but they aren’t going to mobilize staff and financial resources to support them. Members donate to these groups to represent their interest in civil liberties or environmental protection. Their annual dues provide a reliable basis for lobbying staff and policy experts, both in Washington, DC, and in states across the country. The netroots define membership differently, disassociating it from financial transactions. Instead, they rely upon a fluid fundraising model based on targeted, timely action appeals. As a result, the netroots become “issue generalists.” Staff structures and tactical repertoires are all built around the Internet. This yields new work routines, communications practices, and broad strategic assumptions. While other left-leaning interest groups remained focused within their traditional issue silos, the netroots swarmed to Wisconsin, providing a nationwide cavalry and expanding the scope of the conflict.
The third lesson is that Internet-mediated political